Each year there's more gloom-mongering yet each year music-lovers remain spoilt for choice in terms of recordings. Opera fans in particular have been enjoying the fruits of several unusual and exciting projects. Naxos continue with their issues of Rossini operas, the universally acclaimed Vivaldi series on Naïve goes from strength to strength and Melba's Adelaide Ring - on SACD, very much a Ring for the 'noughties' - has been completed with Götterdämmerung. DVD is estabilishing itself for many as the medium of choice for opera and its virtues were best displayed this year, perhaps surprisingly, by two outstanding DVD versions of Rossini's relatively unknown comedy, La pietra del paragone on Opus Arte and Naïve. On CD, Telarc released an excellent recording of Dukas's rarely heard Ariane et Barbe-Bleue and Opera Rara also continue to deliver the goods, their issues always displaying attention to detail and passion for the less frequently explored corners of the repertoire - in particular their recording of Donizetti's final opera, Dom Sébastien, is an extremely important and valuable addition to the catalogue. However, René Jacobs' highly anticipated Don Giovanni on Harmonia Mundi didn't live up to the expectations set by the other excellent recordings in that series.
There's been no shortage of recital discs, either. Some historically minded projects have included Juan Diego Florez's tenuously assembled Arias for Rubini and Cecilia Bartoli's fascinating Maria. Handel recitals once again featured prominently: a fine disc from Magdalena Kozená and a disappointing one from Danielle de Niese. Other recitals included a rather hotchpotch affair from Angela Gheorghiu - Live from La Scala - and fine discs from Amanda Roocroft and Christine Schäfer. Natalie Dessay seems to one of very few singers getting regular enough outings in the recording studio, her disc of Bach and Vivaldi was very well received but her complete La sonnambula (admittedly recorded live) was less successful. Other live recordings included a very disappointing Figaro from Salzburg on DG, featuring Anna Netrebko.
In addition to the Rossini already mentioned, there has been a mixed bag of releases on DVD. Simon Keenlyside was wasted in Don Giovanni from Zurich on EMI and there was a nonsensical Il trovatore from the usually reliable Opus Arte. That same label, however, delivered an excellent Cav and Pag from Madrid as well as a treat for Verdi fans, Oberto from Bilbao. To remind us of the great Pavarotti in his prime, Decca rereleased his Met Ernani.
The LSO and the Concertgebouw have been reaping rewards with their in-house labels. Sir Colin Davis and the LSO in Sibelius and Berlioz is a combination which can usually be counted upon to deliver (as indeed they did in Sibelius' Second Symphony and Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ) and the same combination in Elgar's Enigma Variations proved equally successful. Mariss Jansons' Mahler First Symphony with the Concertgebouw was similarly impressive. The final instalments of John Eliot Gardiner's Bach oddessy, recorded by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists on their own Soli Deo Gloria label have been consistently outstanding, setting new standards in this repertoire (the last volume was released in November). The first recordings of Gardiner's Brahms project are due to be released on the label next year and if the London concert we reviewed is anything to go by, this will be one to look forward to. An exciting development for opera lovers has been Royal Opera House's own archive label - ROH Heritage. We reviewed an excellent Don Giovanni with Cesare Siepi as well as a recording of Victoria de los Angeles in Madama Butterfly. There have been delays due to issues with rights, but we are promised more in this series in the New Year.
Hyperion continues to set standards in chamber music and song - as evinced by Gerald Finley in Barber Songs, the excellent recording of Brahms' Piano Quintet with Stephen Hough and the Takács Quartet and Anne Schwanewilms in the second volume of their series of Lieder by Richard Strauss. There was more excellent Brahms from the Nash Ensemble with their recording of his Sextets on Onyx, as well a rare outing on CPO of string music by Hans Kössler (1853-1926). Mikhael Pletnev dazzled in the second instalment of his Beethoven concerto cycle (Nos. 2&4) while Pierre Boulez concluded his Mahler cycle with a slightly unconvincing 'Symphony of a thousand' (both on DG). Semyon Bychkov added an excellent Tenth Symphony to his ongoing Shostakovich cycle on Avie while we were mightily impressed with the second disc of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's Debussy survey on Chandos.
It's still an interesting time for the record industry with different companies hedging their bets as to how they believe things are going to develop. Universal, who have stopped backing SACD, are looking towards other ways of bringing their music to the public; Deutsche Grammophon, for example, has recently announced its new Web Shop and it will be interesting to see whether the majority of classical music fans will be tempted by the convenience and price of downloads over the superior quality and audiophile appeal of CD and SACD. DVD looks set to continue to assert itself as a major player in the field of operatic recording. Whatever the case, there have been plenty of great recordings, some exceptional performances and some disappointing releases. Below are our top twelve recordings of the year, a selection of notable performances and disappointments. Remember, all our recording reviews can be found on our recordings index.
Top twelve recordings of 2007
Sibelius: Symphony No 2: London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis (LSO Live) - Great performances of music often contain a seminal moment when the listener's senses are completely overwhelmed by the sheer power of the sounds being heard. For me, the arrival of the chorale theme in this recording of the fourth movement of Sibelius' Second Symphony is one of them, a split second when all technical considerations become irrelevant because of the utter emotion of the occasion.
Bach: Cantatas - Vol 22: English Baroque Soloists/Monteverdi Choir/John Eliot Gardiner (SDG) Sir John Eliot Gardiner's series of the complete Bach cantatas, recorded during his year-long Bach Pilgrimage around the world with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in 2000, has been an outstanding achievement from the very start, both in terms of excellent recording quality and brilliant musicianship. But this new release of cantatas for Easter seems to have an extra dimension of spirituality and atmosphere. more>
Mahler: Symphony No 1: Concertgebouw/Jansons (RCO Live) The orchestra may come from Amsterdam, but the Royal Concertgebouw's performance of Mahler's First Symphony on this recording evokes Vienna more acutely than any of the other ten recordings of the work with which I am familiar. Indeed, the brilliance of Mariss Jansons' reading is its fusion of the light touch of the pastiche-First Viennese School style with the world-weariness of fin-de-siècle Viennese society and the emerging artistic avant-garde... more>
Brahms: String Sextets: The Nash Ensemble (Onyx) The Nash Ensemble's latest CD release of Brahms' Sextets No. 1 (op. 18) and No. 2 (op. 36) once again leads the way with an energetic, brilliant and deeply atmospheric performance. On almost every level they impress. From the tightness of their ensemble to the brilliance of their sound these six dynamic performers achieve sparkle and delight. The Onyx label has certainly selected the best: this recording is one to be marvelled at and envied... more>
Strauss Lieder Vol 2 (Hyperion) It comes as little surprise that this disc of Strauss Lieder sung by the German soprano Anne Schwanewilms is so magnificent. She gave a poised and accomplished performance as the Primadonna in the same composer's Ariadne auf Naxos at Covent Garden in 2004 and her poignant and dignified interpretation of the role of the Marschallin in a partial concert performance of Der Rosenkavalier last year was amongst the highlights of the entire season for me. This new recording finds the singer on just as stunning form. more>
Verdi: Stiffelio: Domingo/MET/Levine (DG) Although I saw this performance of Verdi's Stiffelio from the Metropolitan Opera in its original video release, nothing had quite prepared me for the impact it would have on DVD. the hero of the performance is Plàcido Domingo as Stiffelio. When this singer was at his height, as he was in this performance from 1993, nobody on earth could match his ideal combination of inherent vocal and physical splendour, unerring dramatic instinct and intelligent musicality. more>
Berlioz: L'enfance du Christ: LSO/Davis (LSO Live) In a welcome return to their Berlioz cycle, the London Symphony Orchestra's latest recording with their President, Sir Colin Davis, is an immaculate account of the composer's oratorio L'enfance du Christ. And as ever, the combination of Davis, his responsive orchestra, and the French composer whose works he has done so much to champion, is irresistible. This is undoubtedly another benchmark recording from LSO Live. more>
Kössler: String Quintet/Sextet (CPO) Since their genesis in 1995, the Frankfurt String Sextet has strived to present obscure and under-performed music in the concert hall and on disc. Their latest offering - a recording of two chamber works by the German composer Hans Kössler (1853-1926) - does not deviate from this self-chosen enterprise. The Teutonic intensity of Brahms, the tonal ambiguity of Wagner, the harmonic navigation of Schubert, and the freshness and vitality of Dvorák all factor in at various points in the compositional process... more>
Rossini's La pietra del paragone (Opus Arte DVD) La pietra del paragone ('The Touchstone') was Rossini's seventh opera and undoubtedly the work with which he really made his mark. It premiered at La Scala on 26 September 1812 and was given an astonishing fifty-three performances; at the last of these, seven of the numbers were encored. Of the many joys that this new DVD from Opus Arte has to offer, the greatest is without question the opportunity to hear this marvellous score in all its glory. Essential viewing. more>
Cecilia Bartoli: Maria (Decca) Although her performances of baroque and classical period music are acclaimed by many, for me Cecilia Bartoli's strength has always been in the bel canto music of her homeland. Both her Covent Garden performances as Fiorilla in Rossini's Il turco in Italia and the recording of the opera on Decca remain my favourite examples of the singer's work. The high degree of expression with which she approaches everything she sings is more suited to the overt emotions of Rossini and his contemporaries than Mozart and Handel. more>
Brahms Piano Quintet: Hough/Takács (Hyperion) It's with rather dull inevitability that this disc from Stephen Hough and the Takács Quartet is every bit as good as one would expect. A forthright, clearly defined and stunningly well played performance of Brahms' F minor Piano Quintet is coupled with the same composer's String Quartet in A minor. This has to be one of the most intelligently played and controlled performance of the quintet I've heard; this is chamber music playing of the highest order. more>
Gerald Finley sings Songs by Samuel Barber (Hyperion) Not the perfect soundtrack to the Christmas family lunch, perhaps, but the redoubtable Gerald Finley's new disc of songs by Samuel Barber is both thought-provoking and emotive. In particular, I admire the way in which the singer has considered the sounds he created to suit this repertoire. The eeriness of so many of these numbers needs not only a beautiful voice but an even vocal production, seamless legato and the ability to respond to the text... more>
Mark Elder conducting Opera Rara's important release of Donizetti's Dom Sébastien, James Ehnes in Elgar's Violin Concerto on Onyx, Mikhail Pletnev in Beethoven Piano Concertos on DG, Christine Schäfer's 'Apparition' on Onyx, Kate Royal's debut disc on EMI, Veronique Gens in Canteloube on Naxos, Dmitri Hvrostovsky looking to new repertoire in his 'Heroes and Villians' disc on Delos.
Expectations were sky-high for Jacobs' Don Giovanni but it turned out to be the least successful of his Mozart recordings. Other disappointments were EMI's lazy issue of Don Giovanni from Zurich with Simon Keenlyside, Robert Carson's Il trovatore from Bregenz on Opus Arte, Danielle de Niese's Handel on Decca, and Semele from Chandos with Rosemary Joshua.
By Hugo Shirley